The mountainous Thai province has emerged as a hub of sustainable agriculture, with forward-thinking chefs in its namesake city taking full advantage of the bounty of local produce.
Photographs by Marisa Marchitelli
Though dinner is still a few hours away, Phanuphon Bulsuwan is already guiding me on a remarkable culinary expedition. Not just backstage through his kitchen, but into storage rooms packed with large glass beakers, colorful cultures swirling inside. Better known as Chef Black, Bulsuwan is co-owner of Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, a compact restaurant whose dedication to hyperlocal ingredients and fermentation techniques has put the city of Chiang Mai on the global foodie map.
“Here, try this,” he says, passing me a dish that tastes like, well, Thailand — a mélange of sweet-salty-spicy flavors accentuated by the tang of fish sauce. Surrounded by jars of fermented delicacies, Bulsuwan looks like a mad scientist. “You can ferment anything,” the 38-year-old adds with a mischievous smile.
Bulsuwan grew up in Chiang Mai, the largest city in northern Thailand and the historic capital of the Lanna Kingdom. His hometown has always had a delightful independent streak. Fittingly, its hottest chef is self-taught; before launching Blackitch in 2013 with his wife, Beer, he was a civil engineer.
Located above a gelato café in the trendy Nimmanhaemin neighborhood, the restaurant has only 16 seats, which even in the midst of a pandemic get booked up well in advance. It’s easy to see why: Bulsuwan concocts Japanese-influenced nine-course menus using whatever is fresh that day, sourcing his produce and meat (including pork from locally reared black pigs) from nearby farms and foraging for other ingredients in the countryside. Depending on the time of year, you can expect things like smoked bonito with pickled tomato, or a chowder of Chiang Mai river clams spiked with sato, a Thai rice wine. Aside from imparting unique flavors, the chef’s penchant for fermentation — he makes his own fish paste, soy sauce, and pickles — also serves to avoid food waste, as does his recycling of used cooking oil into soap.
“Seasonality and provenance are so important these days, as more people are concerned about their food,” Bulsuwan says. “They want to know what it is, where it comes from. That’s good for us, and good for the farmers and fishermen who supply us.” Bulsuwan is arguably the star of Chiang Mai’s sustainable food scene, but he’s not alone in extolling local produce. For years, at feasts served in Bangkok’s finest restaurants, I’d hear the same thing: how the secret of a magical dish I was devouring was due to some herb or heirloom tomato or exotic lime, all from Chiang Mai and the surrounding province of the same name.
“Anything that we don’t grow ourselves comes from Chiang Mai,” Deepanker Khosla told me before my trip at his “urban farm” restaurant in Bangkok, Haoma, which is renowned not only for the charismatic chef’s neo-Indian cuisine, but also for his commitment to food philanthropy (launched in April, Khosla’s No One Hungry program distributes free nutritious meals to people whose livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus). He reeled off a list of vegetables he buys from the province — mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), kohlrabi, finger limes — before enthusing, “Chiang Mai farmers are master tomato breeders!”
Khosla credits this bounty to the province’s relatively temperate climate. The weather there is milder than in the stifling central plains near Bangkok; during the cool season running from early December to February, nighttime temperatures can drop below 10°C, especially in Chiang Mai’s cloud-shrouded hills.
Nowadays, those hills are bustling with farms, fruit orchards, tea gardens, and coffee plantations. Much of the groundwork for this was laid down by the Royal Project Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 1969 by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej to introduce new cash crops to northern Thailand’s hill tribes in an effort to wean them off opium cultivation. In the decades since, small-scale agriculture has expanded across the region, with a diverse group of producers supplying markets and restaurants in Chiang Mai and beyond. Some of Thailand’s finest coffee beans are grown just across the provincial border on the slopes of Doi Chang (Elephant Mountain) in Chiang Rai; closer to home is Akha Ama Coffee, a social enterprise founded by Lee Ayu Chuepa in his native Akha village of Maejantai to process, market, and improve the sustainability of their coffee harvests. The company has since opened three cafés in town, contributing to one of Asia’s most passionate coffee cultures.
The diversification of quality crops in the countryside has also helped elevate the local dining scene; this year, Michelin included Chiang Mai for the first time in its Thailand guide, with 50 restaurants receiving Bib Gourmand or Michelin Plate listings (Blackitch among them). One of the best new openings is a 10-minute walk east of the old city wall’s Tha Phae Gate: Kiti Panit, housed within a gabled, golden-hued mansion that began life in 1888 as a general store. Fifth-generation owner Rungroj “Tao” Ingudananda (a co-owner of Bangkok’s Le Du restaurant) has restored the once-derelict building into a gorgeous dining space filled with antiques, old family portraits, and a homey sense of Sino-Thai nostalgia. In the kitchen, chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn, formerly of Michelin-starred Saawaan in Bangkok, turns out thoughtful Lanna-inspired cuisine; standout dishes include moo pa bai jan (wild boar curry) and gwai tiaw kua goong mae nam (rice noodles with river prawns).
Chiang Mai is really up and coming these days,” says Ingudananda, who, like Bulsuwan, notes that his customers seem genuinely interested in provenance and sustainability. “It’s a wonderful movement. We are always looking to source locally and highlight what is produced in the area.”
Across the street, Yak Ka Jon Slow Fish Kitchen has been buzzing since its July debut. The casual indoor-outdoor venue is the brainchild of Yaowadee Chukong, a champion of environmentally friendly agriculture and a founding member of the Chiang Mai chapter of the Slow Food movement. Seafood is the order of the day here, but not just any seafood: Chukong sources everything from a sustainable fishermen’s cooperative that she helped set up in the southern Thai province of Chumphon. It all arrives fresh each day for a menu that offers stir-fried squid with krill paste, crab ceviche, crabmeat omelets, and an astonishing (at least for landlocked Chiang Mai) range of fish dishes, including charcoal-grilled trevally, mackerel curry, deep-fried spotted sicklefish, and brown-sugar-cured sardine jerky — all accompanied by local organic rice and vegetables, of course.
Elsewhere, Swedish tea guru Kenneth Rimdahl stands out for his one-man agricultural crusade. Rimdahl has been in the tea business for ages. He worked in Sweden and Spain before moving to Chiang Mai in 2013 to launch Monsoon Tea, an enterprise devoted to restoring native tea fields in the forests of northern Thailand. This year, he was nominated for the Food Planet Prize, a new award honoring sustainability in the global food chain.
To give me a better sense of his mission, Rimdahl takes me into the distant hills along a wildly twisting road that has us sloshing back and forth in his four-wheel-drive. Two hours later, we pull up in front of an old wooden tea factory on the outskirts of the Pai Valley. As we hike into the jungle behind, Rimdahl points out tall trees. These are Camellia sinensis assamica, or miang, a tea variety indigenous to the Thai highlands. Many are centuries old. On the hillside above, scarfed workers are picking leaves from smaller plants. “This is what tea looks like in a natural forest,” he says.
Miang leaves are traditionally fermented and chewed, an ancient practice that might even predate tea brewing in China. When Rimdahl first encountered the plants on an early foray to the mountains, he recognized them as a “forest friendly” alternative to domesticated tea grown on herbicide-dependent plantations cleared of all other vegetation.
“Growing tea in this traditional way is much more sustainable and better for the diversity of the environment,” he says. “Our goal is to educate people about the value of these forests, to show farmers that they can earn money by keeping the forest intact. It’s about producing sustainable tea in the best way possible.” He’s also working with growers to replant forest areas that were decades ago cleared for growing opium and other monocrops such as corn, rubber, and pineapple.
Back in Chiang Mai, I sample his wares at the Monsoon Tea shop on Charoenrat Road, where shelves are lined with colorful tin tea caddies bearing names like Siam Sunrise, Jungle Green, and Lanna Silver Needle. Rimdahl produces single-source green and black tea, oolong, as well as flavored teas like mango and lychee that are popular on ice. “I’m not a tea snob,” he says. “That’s why I flavor tea, to make it more popular. And the more tea I sell, the more forest I can save.”
Another farsighted endeavor is Ori9in, an 80-hectare organic farm conceived by British chef and longtime Thai resident James Noble. Like its predecessor, The Boutique Farmers, which Noble established in 2015 near the southern resort town of Pranburi, Ori9in supplies on-demand produce to some of Thailand’s top kitchens as well as to his own restaurant, Waiting For May, which has relocated to a pop-up location on the outskirts of town (it will move to permanent premises on the farm next year). But the new operation, backed by the Banyan Tree Group, represents a massive scaling up. “Boutique Farmers was really the first step,” Noble explains, “but this is what I’ve wanted to do all along: create a completely sustainable farm, and the first completely carbon-zero, 360-degree operation in the world.” He has also been working with village cooperatives to use some of his land for raising crops on a shared basis.
Praised for exotic items like Israeli figs and Australian finger limes, Ori9in also produces its own chicken, fish, and beef. Some of this ends up on the tables at Waiting For May, which is named for Noble’s Thai wife, who co-manages the farm. Here, the chef’s background in Michelin-starred restaurants plays out in dishes like wood-smoked goat ribs, roasted cauliflower steak, and eggplant masala piccata with hung yogurt.
Noble says many people think of Isan, the vast rural swath of northeastern Thailand, as the country’s great farmland, but that in actuality it mostly produces rice. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is Thailand’s most diverse agricultural region. “This is where the best farms are, and the skills. And you have this great movement of artisans producing amazing livestock and produce.” Gazing across a cornfield, he adds, “There are lots of incredibly passionate people doing incredible things in Chiang Mai.”
Where to Stay
Anantara Chiang Mai Resort (doubles from US$230) delivers riverside luxury on the grounds of the city’s former British consulate. Across the water in the Wat Gate area, 137 Pillars House (doubles from US$320) is a 30-suite gem centered on a beautifully restored 19th-century residence.
Akha Ama Coffee
175/1 Rachdhamnoen Rd.
Blackitch Artisan Kitchen
Nimmanhaemin Soi 7.
Kiti Panit General Store
19 Tha Pae Rd.; kitipanit.com.
Charoenrat Rd. 328/3
Mae Faek, San Sai District.
Waiting For May
315 San Sai Noi; 66-82/183-6505.
Yak Ka Jon Slow Fish Kitchen
88 Tha Pae Rd.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020/February 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Land of Plenty”).